Progress or terror for Afghan women?

The Scotsman of Sept. 30 carried a feature on Commander Malalai Kakar, leader of a special department of the Kandahar police force on violence against women—who was gunned down by a presumed Taliban assassin as she walked out her front door on the way to work. Her son was critically injured in the attack. The European Union mission described the attack as “particularly abhorrent” and said she was an “example” to her fellow citizens. Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, described the killing as “an act of cowardice by enemies of peace, welfare and reconstruction in the country.” But Kakar, the first woman investigator in Kandahar Police Department, had been receiving death threats for months.

Noted The Scostman:

Today, in theory at least, Afghan women can participate in all walks of life. Where once women were confined to the house and – under the Taleban – given no voice, no rights, and certainly no employment, they are now able to play a far more active role in their country’s society. Of Afghanistan’s 361 MPs, 91 are women. Women are once again working – in schools and hospitals, even in police departments, and taboo issues such as honour killings, abortions, forced marriages and rape are being discussed more openly than ever before. There are human rights organisations fighting for women’s rights, and a government that recognises the right for them to be heard.

But for many working women in Afghanistan, particularly those with a public profile, a life of employment is far from safe. Kandahar’s own MP, Zurghana Kakar (no relation to Commander Kakar), recently narrowly survived an attempt on her life which killed her husband. One of Commander Kakar’s closest friends, Safia Ahmed-jan, the provincial director of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and an outspoken advocate on women’s rights described by George W Bush as “a leader who wanted to give young girls an education in Afghanistan”, was killed in front of her home in September 2006. In June, a policewoman named Bibi Hoor, was shot and killed in Herat after ignoring warnings that she must give up her job.

Commander Kakar, for one, appeared gloomy about the future. In one interview, she said: “We are trying to apply the law and the constitution is supposed to protect women’s rights. But I fear that we are going backwards. More and more obstacles are being put in our path. Instead of becoming more confident, women are becoming more afraid of the threats.”

In contrast, the New York Times of Oct. 6 emphasizes the situation in Bamiyan—stronghold of the ethnic Hazaras who never supported the Taliban. (Kandahar had been the Taliban’s primary stronghold.) Bamiayan has Afghanistan’s only woman governor, Habiba Sarabi, a doctor and educator who ran underground literacy classes during the Taliban regime, appointed to lead the province by President Karzai three years ago. It also profiles Nahida Rezai, the first woman to join Bamiyan’s police force. The Times does acknowledge:

More than 80 percent of Afghan women are illiterate. Women’s life expectancy is only 45 years, lower than that of men, mostly because of the very high rates of death during pregnancy. Forced marriage and under-age marriage are common for girls, and only 13 percent of girls complete primary school, compared with 32 percent of boys.

But the general theme is one of progress. The only reference to the late Commander Kakar comes late in the story:

Some of the changes in Bamian have been echoed in more conservative parts of Afghanistan. But even the success stories sometimes end up showing the continuing dangers for women who take jobs to improve their lot. In Kandahar Province, one of the most noted female police officials in the country, Capt. Malalai Kakar, was gunned down on her way to work on Sept. 28.

See our last post on Afghanistan and women in Afghanistan.